Reynaldo Lopez’s Quest to Become a Smart Power Pitcher

Reynaldo Lopez remains a work in progress. The 24-year-old right-hander has been brilliant in his past two outings — allowing just a pair of runs over 14 innings — but his overall performance this season has been a mixed bag. In 28 starts for Chicago’s South Side club, Lopez has a 4.37 ERA, and he’s fanned just 6.8 batters per nine innings.

That doesn’t mean he isn’t making strides, nor does it mean that he can’t miss bats when he needs to. Acquired by the White Sox along with Lucas Giolito and Dane Dunning in the December 2016 deal that sent Adam Eaton to the Washington Nationals, Lopez has been removing the word “raw” from his reputation. Tutelage from a pair of baseball’s best pitching minds is a big reason why.

“I’ve matured a lot,” Lopez told me this summer via translator Billy Russo. “Four or five years ago my mindset was to throw hard and overpower the hitters. Now it’s more about location and pitch selection, and managing the game. You have to be smart in order to succeed at this level.”

The native of San Pedro de Macoris began learning that lesson upon his arrival in the nation’s capital midway through the 2016 season. His initial outings were rocky, and teammates were in his ear. Their messages were straightforward. He couldn’t just throw hard. He needed to have a plan.

His first tutorial came from one of the game’s best, and most cerebral, pitchers.

“Once I made my debut with the Nationals — after my first game — Max Scherzer approached me,” recalled Lopez. “He sat down with me for half an hour and told me what I needed to do to be a successful pitcher up here. He told me what I needed to learn.”

The eager student not only listened, he was inquisitive as well. Lopez asked the three-time Cy Young Award winner how he throws some of his pitches and about how he approaches different situations. A subject that wasn’t broached — at least not directly — is one in which Scherzer is especially well versed.

“He never talked to me about analytics,” said Lopez. “He mostly talked to me about needing to learn and about how to get ready for the hitter. What kind of pitches does the hitter like to hit? The location of those pitches. How to change the visual angle of my pitches, up, down, in, out. How to attack the hitters using fastballs. He said that learning swings would give me a lot of insights.”

Two years later, that education is continuing under one of the most highly respected pitching coaches in the business. Not surprisingly, Don Cooper has been communicating similar messages.

“He says many of the same things, the same topics, but in a different way,” Lopez told me. “He says them with more branches. Be more aggressive. Be smarter. Have confidence in myself. He works with me a lot on the mental side of the game, and that’s important. Where you can really get ahead of the hitters is by winning the mental battle.”

Cooper is also responsible for an important addition to the right-hander’s arsenal. Last season, he taught Lopez a slider.

“I have to thank Coop for recommending it and for showing it to me,” shared Lopez, who became comfortable with the pitch sooner than he expected. “Before, I was just fastball, changeup, curveball, and didn’t really have a wipeout pitch to use against righties. The slider is that pitch.”

In terms of intention, “wipeout” is somewhat of a misnomer. Coming off a game in which he threw a large majority of his sliders for strikes, Lopez told me that he isn’t looking for swings and misses with the pitch. What he’s looking for is weak contact.

According to Cooper, that’s only partially true. Explaining that the slider has “supplanted the curveball” as the youngster’s primary breaking ball, he added that Lopez “has three out pitches: a chase slider, a fastball — elevated fastball, pound [the zone] — and a changeup below.”

The latter is an offering that both Cooper and Scherzer have stressed the importance of mastering.

“My changeup has always been OK, but I didn’t have the confidence to throw it with the conviction I needed,” admitted Lopez, who has gone to his four-seam circle just under 20% of the time since coming to Chicago. “When I was with the Nationals, I asked Scherzer how he grips his. He showed me, and he also told me that I needed to just throw it and not be thinking of the outcome. I maybe didn’t pay enough attention to that, but after I was traded here, Coop saw it and said, ‘You know what? You have a good changeup.’ So I started throwing it more, and it’s helped me be a smarter pitcher.”

With a fastball that averages 96 mph and has touched triple-digits, he also qualifies as a power pitcher. The suggestion that he’s morphing into a “smart power pitcher” prompts an appreciative smile.

“Before, I was just a thrower,” affirmed Lopez. “Now I’m a pitcher. I know that I have a good fastball — I have good velocity — but I also know that I can be more effective mixing my fastball with other pitches. I’m smarter now with how to use my repertoire. I’ve learned a lot, and I’m going to continue to keep learning.”

David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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3 years ago

“‘He never talked to me about analytics,’ said Lopez. ‘He mostly talked to me about needing to learn and about how to get ready for the hitter. What kind of pitches does the hitter like to hit? The location of those pitches. How to change the visual angle of my pitches, up, down, in, out. How to attack the hitters using fastballs'”

This. This is what analytics is about. Providing answers to those questions. (some of analytics is figuring out new strategies and identifying many more things like how to throw pitches better, etc.).